‘The Queen’s bedroom is lit!’ is a rather modern-sounding subtitle from Robert Bresson’s 1974 retelling of the King Arthur legends; it’s a nice bedroom, but it’s not all that poppin’ TBF. Landing somewhere between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and John Boorman’s Excalibur, Lancelot du Lac has a pretty rarefied pedigree; Michael Haneke rates it as one of the best films ever made, and it’s certainly a different, far more minimalist approach to the story than Hollywood ever took.
Working with a non-professional cast, Bresson subverts expectations from the get-go; without anything as prosaic as a credits sequence or even a title card, we kick off with close combat and knights being slaughtered, with bloody gouts of blood. Decapitations and gore are usually part of the genre, but Bresson seems to delivers them without context or meaning to suggest the pointless energy of their central quest.
It’s an intentional strategy; we settle down via some foreboding skeletons in armour to the comedown after an unsuccessful Grail search; the knights have returned empty handed, and Lancelot (Luc Simon) resumes his affair with the king’s rather demure wife Guinevere (Laura Duke Condominas). Intrigue centres on a Whitsun tournament, where Lancelot, the ‘world’s premiere knight’ as he’s described in the subtitles, competes in disguise, but has Lancelot got what it takes to ascend the vertiginous climb to true spiritual greatness? If you know the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, you’ll know the answer is Nope and things fall apart pretty fast…
With an unrelenting bagpipe soundtrack, Lancelot du Lac offers some strange production details; all the knights have groovy 70’s Premier League footballer hairstyles, the armour constantly squeaks in a way that suggests a conscious choice was made to emphasise this annoying sound, and in many scenes the actors are only viewed from the knee downwards . Yet Bresson does create some kind of worldly aesthetic by skipping the usual rousing crowd-scenes and po-faced magic (although Merlin is present) and focusing on the dour way the knights rebound off each other in a surprisingly matter-of-fact fashion, with Morded (Patrick Bernhard) given more time than in most versions.
Lancelot du Lac may have little to offer today’s thrill-seekers, but it’s a surprisingly sober-minded version of the Grail legend. Ok, so maybe the whole experience isn’t quite as lit as we’d hope for, but Lancelot du Lac is still one of the most faithful in-spirit versions of the Round Table story, one that doubles down on key themes of destructive, corrosive romance and increasing, unavoidable, deadly levels of entropy.